From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

October 21, 1998*Being (semi) Digital

I read in the newspapers that the Frankfurt Book Fair took place this month. Though I wouldn't go so far as to say that I believe it if I read it in the paper, I do come from a generation that gives special authority to the printed word. But if that's the case, why is it that after reading about the Book Fair in the newspaper I turned to the internet to get more details? I'm not sure what the answer to that question is. In part it reflects the degree to which I've incorporated digital technologies into my work and play habits, but another part of the answer stems from a simple, basic curiosity: I'm interested in knowing why, with all the hype that surrounds us daily about the inevitable domination of digital technologies in our lives, this year's Frankfurt Book Fair is reported as being the biggest ever.
It certainly wasn't difficult finding the Book Fair online. Perhaps also not very surprising was the fact that the online information wasn't particularly interesting either. More and better organized information on the fair fell into my hands when I came across a recent issue of the International Herald Tribune.
So what's the point? On the one hand, it's not only a question of whether we're still going to need three-dimensional books, but also a question of the paperless society. We seem to being hearing that catch-word a bit less frequently than we did even a year ago, and it's not only because we're perhaps realizing that going fully digital is a more complicated matter than it originally appeared to be. Long ago we read that the fax machine would stay around because in business transactions the Japanese are unwilling to forego having things written down on paper. I'm not sure what their reason for that is (if it's true) but after a few years of rather advanced digitality I can give mine: I like paper. I like the feel of a book in my hands. I like to be able to flip through the pages of a book or a magazine. I like having books on my shelves.

One of the qualities I like most about print media is their ability to encourage serendipity. It's not that this is impossible via the internet (sometimes that's all there is) but that with printed media it's right there in front (or perhaps in back) of you. Of course it's occasionally happened to me that I've typed in what I think is the right name of a web site into the "Location" window, only to discover that I've made a mistake (maybe I've typed .com instead of .org), and that by some lucky chance I've hit upon something truly interesting that I wasn't aware of. Yes, it's happened, just as clicking on a link I've found via a search engine search has brought me to something totally unexpected. But it happens much more frequently by not reaching the right page in an encyclopedia and finding something worthwhile on the page I do turn to, or by reading the back side of an article clipped by my mother (hey! we've mentioned this at least once before) and discovering that it's more interesting than the intended side.

But once again, this isn't the point (or at least the intended point) of this column. The point is, I think, that digital technologies are presenting us with the possibility of hybrid alternatives to traditional book publishing which make a total transition to digitality unnecessary and perhaps even undesirable. An example? On-Demand Printing. The warehouse costs that result from unsold and remaindered books has traditionally kept the publishing industry from being too adventurous. After all, who wants to publish a few thousands copies of a book and then discover that the market for the book is only a few hundred copies. Various digital "computer-to-plate" technologies make low press runs feasible, and also can make "out of print" a thing of the past. If publishers can store the digital information necessary for a low printing run, on-demand printing becomes economically viable. Ultimately this can lead to the "virtual warehouse" which has no stock but instead makes print runs according to orders received. Apparently, the technology for this already exists, and in the relatively near future will even start to make economic sense.

Perhaps this will mean that I can finally get my hands on a few books which have been out of print for years but which I'd still like to find. But for university publishing houses it can mean much more. By combining online catalogs and on-demand printing we can envision a situation in which someone conducting research can find a reference to a book or article and send off a request for a reprint (which of course wouldn't be called a reprint anymore, would it). Sure, we all prefer finding online copies of what we're looking for, but it seems as though copyrights are going to be staying with us for a long time, and few academic institutions are going to make all of their catalog available for free via the web. So on-demand can have some definite advantages here.

And in another significant realm of print as well: made-to-order newspapers, for instance. Admittedly, I go through occasional phases of getting my news via the web, but I almost always return to the print version, even when I'm reading day-old (or more) papers. Maybe it's a habit that identifies me as a member of a pre-digital generation, but I still like the feel of a newspaper in my hands. But why should geography keep me from reading my newspaper of choice (not that I have one at the moment)? And of course the answer is that it shouldn't. If I remember correctly, already a few years ago an Israeli firm developed the technology that would allow me to drop a coin in a newspaper dispenser, and as a result get a high quality printout of an continuously updated newspaper from anywhere in the world. And of course that also means that I can customize the newspaper that I get, asking only for the comics, for instance. Personally, I'd prefer an arrangement of this sort to having to read an online newspaper, though I'm not sure that Tzippi would.

Quite possibly, the immediate and worldwide availability of books made possible by internet access makes size a problem of the past. Small publishing houses that can hardly compete for distribution with the publishing giants are on equal footing when books are ordered online because warehousing, once again, isn't a problem. And when we (again) combine this with on-demand printing it really doesn't matter how big a publishing firm you are. Your potential readership has more or less equal access to your titles (if they know they exist). Who needs to become fully digital when it's becoming easier and easier to find and order a book, and perhaps cheaper as well?

Someone's always coming up with a new idea, and just maybe some of those new ideas are truly going to make hard copy books a things of the past. Most fiction is still non-hypertextual and thus can be accessed fully rather interchangeably either in print or in digital format. Numerous attempts at serious hypertextual fiction are being made, but they're still far from ever becoming mainstream. On the other hand, new technologies are being invented which actually may make it possible (and comfortable) to go to bed with a digital book in our hands.

And if eventually even curling up with a book in bed on a winter afternoon becomes a digital experience, what will be left that distinguishes traditional print media from its digital counterpart? Well...

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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